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THE DECREE OF FATE
ON his arrival in London, Mountjoy went to the Nurses' Institute to
inquire for Mrs. Vimpany.
She was again absent, in attendance on another patient. The address of
the house (known only to the matron) was, on this occasion, not to be
communicated to any friend who might make inquiries. A bad case of
scarlet fever had been placed under the nurse's care, and the danger of
contagion was too serious to be trifled with.
The events which had led to Mrs. Vimpany's present employment had not
occurred in the customary course.
A nurse who had recently joined the Institute had been first engaged to
undertake the case, at the express request of the suffering person--who
was said to be distantly related to the young woman. On the morning
when she was about to proceed to the scene of her labours, news had
reached her of the dangerous illness of her mother. Mrs. Vimpany, who
was free at the time, and who felt a friendly interest in her young
colleague, volunteered to take her place. Upon this, a strange request
had been addressed to the matron, on behalf of the sick man. He desired
to be "informed of it, if the new nurse was an Irishwoman." Hearing
that she was an Englishwoman, he at once accepted her services, being
himself (as an additional element of mystery in the matter) an
The matron's English prejudices at once assumed that there had been
some discreditable event in the man's life, which might be made a
subject of scandalous exposure if he was attended by one of his own
countrypeople. She advised Mrs. Vimpany to have nothing to do with the
afflicted stranger. The nurse answered that she had promised to attend
on him--and she kept her promise.
Mountjoy left the Institute, after vainly attempting to obtain Mrs.
Vimpany's address. The one concession which the matron offered to make
was to direct his letter, and send it to the post, if he would be
content with that form of communication.
On reflection, he decided to write the letter.
Prompt employment of time might be of importance, if it was possible to
prevent any further communication with Lord Larry on the part of his
Irish correspondent. Using the name with which Iris had provided him,
Hugh wrote to inquire if it was familiar to Mrs. Vimpany, as the name
of a person with whom she had been, at any time, acquainted. In this
event, he assured her that an immediate consultation between them was
absolutely necessary in the interests of Iris. He added, in a
postscript, that he was in perfect health, and that he had no fear of
infection--and sent his letter to the matron to be forwarded.
The reply reached him late in the evening. It was in the handwriting of
a stranger, and was to this effect:
"Dear Mr. Mountjoy,--It is impossible that I can allow you to run the
risk of seeing me while I am in my present situation. So serious is the
danger of contagion in scarlet fever, that I dare not even write to you
with my own hand on note-paper which has been used in the sick room.
This is no mere fancy of mine; the doctor in attendance here knows of a
case in which a small piece of infected flannel communicated the
disease after an interval of no less than a year. I must trust to your
own good sense to see the necessity of waiting, until I can receive you
without any fear of consequences to yourself. In the meantime, I may
answer your inquiry relating to the name communicated in your letter. I
first knew the gentleman you mention some years since; we were
introduced to each other by Lord Harry; and I saw him afterwards on
more than one occasion."
Mountjoy read this wise and considerate reply to his letter with
Here was the good fortune for which he had not dared to hope, declaring
itself in favour of Iris. Here (if Mrs. Vimpany could be persuaded to
write to her friend) was the opportunity offered of keeping the
hot-tempered Irish husband passive and harmless, by keeping him without
further news of the assassin of Arthur Mountjoy. Under these
encouraging circumstances the proposed consultation which might have
produced such excellent results had been rejected; thanks to a
contemptible fear of infection, excited by a story of a trumpery piece
Hugh snatched up the unfortunate letter (cast away on the floor) to
tear it in pieces and throw it into the waste-paper basket--and checked
himself. His angry hand had seized on it with the blank leaf of the
On that leaf he discovered two little lines of print, presenting, in
the customary form, the address of the house at which the letter had
been written! The writer, in taking the sheet of paper from the case,
must have accidentally turned it wrong side uppermost on the desk, and
had not cared to re-copy the letter, or had not discovered the mistake.
Restored to his best good-humour, Hugh resolved to surprise Mrs.
Vimpany by a visit, on the next day, which would set the theory of
contagion at defiance, and render valuable service to Iris at a crisis
in her life.
Having time before him for reflection, in the course of the evening, he
was at no loss to discover a formidable obstacle in the way of his
Whether he gave his name or concealed his name, when he asked for Mrs.
Vimpany at the house-door, she would in either case refuse to see him.
The one accessible person whom he could consult in this difficulty was
his faithful old servant.
That experienced man--formerly employed, at various times, in the army,
in the police, and in service at a public school--obtained leave to
make some preliminary investigations on the next morning.
He achieved two important discoveries. In the first place, Mrs. Vimpany
was living in the house in which the letter to his master had been
written. In the second place, there was a page attached to the domestic
establishment (already under notice to leave his situation), who was
accessible to corruption by means of a bribe. The boy would be on the
watch for Mr. Mountjoy at two o'clock on that day, and would show him
where to find Mrs. Vimpany, in the room near the sick man, in which she
was accustomed to take her meals.
Hugh acted on his instructions, and found the page waiting to admit him
secretly to the house. Leading the way upstairs, the boy pointed with
one hand to a door on the second floor, and held out the other hand to
receive his money. While he pocketed the bribe, and disappeared,
Mountjoy opened the door.
Mrs. Vimpany was seated at a table waiting for her dinner. When Hugh
showed himself she started to her feet with a cry of alarm.
"Are you mad?" she exclaimed. "How did you get here? What do you want
here? Don't come near me!"
She attempted to pass Hugh on her way out of the room. He caught her by
the arm, led her back to her chair, and forced her to seat herself
again. "Iris is in trouble," he pleaded, "and you can help her."
"The fever!" she cried, heedless of what he had said. "Keep back from
For the second time she tried to get out of the room. For the second
time Hugh stopped her.
"Fever or no fever," he persisted, "I have something to say to you. In
two minutes I shall have said it, and I will go."
In the fewest possible words he described the situation of Iris with
her jealous husband. Mrs. Vimpany indignantly interrupted him.
"Are you running this dreadful risk," she asked, "with nothing to say
to me that I don't know already? Her husband jealous of her? Of course
he is jealous of her! Leave me--or I will ring for the servant."
"Ring, if you like," Hugh answered; "but hear this first. My letter to
you alluded to a consultation between us, which might be necessary in
the interests of Iris. Imagine her situation if you can! The assassin
of Arthur Mountjoy is reported to be in London; and Lord Harry has
heard of it."
Mrs. Vimpany looked at him with horror in her eyes.
"Gracious God!" she cried, "the man is here--under my care. Oh, I am
not in the conspiracy to hide the wretch! I knew no more of him than
you do when I offered to nurse him. The names that have escaped him, in
his delirium, have told me the truth."
As she spoke, a second door in the room was opened. An old woman showed
herself for a moment, trembling with terror. "He's breaking out again,
nurse! Help me to hold him!"
Mrs. Vimpany instantly followed the woman into the bed-room. "Wait and
listen," she said to Mountjoy--and left the door open.
The quick, fierce, muttering tones of a man in delirium were now
fearfully audible. His maddened memory was travelling back over his own
horrible life. He put questions to himself; he answered himself:
"Who drew the lot to kill the traitor? I did! I did! Who shot him on
the road, before he could get to the wood? I did! I did! Arthur
Mountjoy, traitor to Ireland. Set that on his tombstone, and disgrace
him for ever. Listen, boys--listen! There is a patriot among you. I am
the patriot--preserved by a merciful Providence. Ha, my Lord Harry,
search the earth and search the sea, the patriot is out of your reach!
Nurse! What's that the doctor said of me? The fever will kill him?
Well, what does that matter, as long as Lord Harry doesn't kill me?
Open the doors, and let everybody hear of it. I die the death of a
saint--the greatest of all saints--the saint who shot Arthur Mountjoy.
Oh, the heat, the heat, the burning raging heat!" The tortured creature
burst into a dreadful cry of rage and pain. It was more than Hugh's
resolution could support. He hurried out of the house.
* * * * * * * *
Ten days passed. A letter, in a strange handwriting, reached Iris at
The first part of the letter was devoted to the Irish desperado, whom
Mrs. Vimpany had attended in his illness.
When she only knew him as a suffering fellow-creature she had promised
to be his nurse. Did the discovery that he was an assassin justify
desertion, or even excuse neglect? No! the nursing art, like the
healing art, is an act of mercy--in itself too essentially noble to
inquire whether the misery that it relieves merits help. All that
experience, all that intelligence, all that care could offer, the nurse
gave to the man whose hand she would have shrunk from touching in
friendship, after she had saved his life.
A time had come when the fever threatened to take Lord Harry's
vengeance out of his hands. The crisis of the disease declared itself.
With the shadow of death on him, the wretch lived through it--saved by
his strong constitution, and by the skilled and fearless woman who
attended on him. At the period of his convalescence, friends from
Ireland (accompanied by a medical man of their own choosing) presented
themselves at the house, and asked for him by the name under which he
passed--Carrigeen. With every possible care, he was removed; to what
destination had never been discovered. From that time, all trace of him
had been lost.
Terrible news followed on the next page.
The subtle power of infection had asserted itself against the poor
mortal who had defied it. Hugh Mountjoy, stricken by the man who had
murdered his brother, lay burning under the scarlet fire of the fever.
But the nurse watched by him, night and day.
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